Jacobsen: When does education become propaganda?

I have recently been receiving e-mails about events sponsored by The Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism, a relatively new organization housed in the Yale Institution for Social and Policy Studies, because they are forwarded on to the Yale Divinity School. As a recent Yale undergraduate, I was unaware of the existence of the organization until I began my master’s at the Divinity School and started receiving notifications about their events. Four years ago, I would have thought nothing of it; now, having learned more about Middle Eastern politics and the phenomenon of pro-Israel discourse in the United States, I am greatly alarmed.

Event topics range from “Iran’s anti-Jewish Incitement to Genocide Against Israel: Is the West Asleep Again?” to, most recently, “How Scapegoating Israel Diminishes the Rights of Women in the Middle East.” This latest talk is being given by Professor Phyllis Chesler, who wrote a piece in 2007 entitled, “How my eyes were opened to the barbarity of Islam: Is it racist to condemn fanaticism?” Another seminar, “Anti-Zionism at the UN Human Rights Council,” focused on a paper in which David Matas wrote, “Whatever Israel does to defend itself is, for the most part, de-contextualized, and condemned as gratuitous, spontaneous acts of violence against innocents … Human rights experts for the Commission, like the Council, produced all too often misleading reports about Israel.” Other events include, “Radical Islam and the Nuclear Bomb,” “The Graphics of Anti-Semitism in the Arab Media,” “Demonization and Delegitimization of Israel: A Form of Contemporary Anti-Semitism,” “Hate Speech and Political Islam: Root Cause of Religious Extremism, Terrorism and Jihad,” and “How the PLO ‘Adapted’ Anti-Semitism as ‘Anti-Zionism.’”

Nowhere in the YIISA’s Mission Statement does the organization explicitly express support for Israel, yet the events sponsored by the organization and the information presented entail systematic, unconditional support for Israel as well as strong tones of Islamophobia. When does education become propaganda? While I cannot draw an exact line, I can certainly say that this organization has crossed it. To oppose anti-Semitism and to provide unconditional support for Israel are two disconnected actions and concepts, and it is the dangerous equation of the two, especially prevalent in America, that provides the impetus for Israel’s unchecked aggression, including what the U.N. has branded war crimes in the course of the 2008 Gaza War during which 1,300 Palestinian civilians were massacred. As any outcry against the actions of Israel is equated with and condemned as anti-Semitism, and those human rights activists who do speak out are attacked with the greatest degree of political dexterity, Israel continues to expand its borders through settlements in Palestinian territory. Unconditional support for Israel is a political position to which I am absolutely unwilling to subscribe, and the University has presented an unfairly one-sided stance, through this organization that it sponsors, which I and many others in the Yale community should not, and cannot, be forced to accept.

I ask that Yale University remind itself that it is an academic institution that should not be throwing its intellectual weight into any political corner, whether it be a politician, an ideology or a country. I call for the University to remember that its student population is diverse and includes many who are directly affected by Israel’s actions. Above all, I call for a spirit of humanitarianism on the part of individuals, and an educated existence in this world of political complexities in which ignorance can lead to exploitation and death, unknown and unobserved by the privileged.

Nora Jacobsen is a 2010 graduate of Saybrook College and master’s candidate in the Divinity School.


  • mrmike527

    Wouldn’t it have been a good idea to go to one of the events before criticizing them? It provides unconditional support for Israel? How do you know? You haven’t even been there.

    I’ve never been to any of these, so I don’t know whether or not these classes are appropriate. And neither do you.

  • River Tam

    > I ask that Yale University remind itself that it is an academic institution that should not be throwing its intellectual weight into any political corner, whether it be a politician, an ideology or a country.

    Uh, Yale certainly throws its intellectual weight behind democracy, capitalism, the United States, human dignity, environmentalism, academic freedom (most of the time), and egalitarianism.

    Those are all ideologies or countries.

  • RexMottram08

    LOL @ Divinity School

  • YourProfessor

    …that provides the impetus for Israel’s unchecked aggression, including what the U.N. has branded war crimes in the course of the 2008 Gaza War during which 1,300 Palestinian civilians were massacred.

    Nora, I know this is a complicated issue, and for you, perhaps this compication is a bit too daunting to sort through. The IDF has identified between 500 and 750 of the dead as belonging to the armed forces of Hamas. The UN also found that the actions of the Gaza population, you know, the indiscriminate rocket firing into civilian territory in Israel, amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity as well. But regardless, and of course, this is your opinion in your own propaganda work, you’ve managed to deligitimize your own work. In trying to prove what might be a valid point of one-sidedness in the YIISA, you injected your own biased and uninformed slant into your article. Sorry, but you would have failed my class had you submitted this. You would have been better leaving that out and posting your propaganda somewhere else.

  • Saybrook10

    Nora, good article. It wasn’t perfect, but it was worth reading, it was thought-provoking, and took a solid stance in a dialogue worth participating in. @YourProfessor: sorry, but you would have failed my class for comma splices had you submitted your post to me.

  • The Anti-Yale

    There are several parenthetical phrases set off by commas, but no comma SPLICES that I can see, (A comma splice is two independent clasues attached to each other by a comma.)

  • jnewsham

    I realize this is incredibly asinine, but for the record, the comma splice: “But regardless, and of course, this is your opinion in your own propaganda work, you’ve managed to deligitimize your own work.”

  • Harbinger904

    Good, very human article and I’m happy to see other students on campus as outraged as I about Yale’s all-too-cozy relationship with the Likhudist Right.

    @RiverTam I have been to many of these events and can testify to their ludicrous bias (btw they are not “classes” they are lectures). YIISA’s egregiously pro-Israel bias isn’t really up for debate. The Institute loves bringing Israeli officials, right-wing pundits, soldiers and commanders and it is the only “institute” Yale sponsors that is not chaired by a Yale professor. The scholars that they do bring only have flattering things to say about Israel — I challenge anyone reading to find one that gave a decent lecture that also happened to critique Israeli policy (fyi, not the campy Dershowitz line “I think I have some criticisms about Israeli policy, but I have no right to criticize and neither do you! I’m a liberal!!! etc. but something substantial and concrete: “The Occupation is wrong and should end”, etc.). If what I just said sounds totalizing, that’s because it is — and it’s true.

  • Harbinger904

    @YourProfessor — I’m pretty sure you’re not actually Nora’s prof. First off, a decent prof. would expect opinionated voices in the bloody “OPINION” section of the newspaper. Your charge/critique doesn’t stick, since she is criticizing an academic institute that Yale supports, which is expected to adhere to a certain standard of genuine scholarship — no such expectation is made on an op-ed writer. Secondly, making such trivial and hypothetical academic threats about an op-ed (to use your own accusation against you) mars your own credibility — any attempt at the institutional intimidation of those weaker than you — to purloin and appropriate a common ditty for the situation — is the last refuge of the scoundrel.

    More substantially, you say Hamas’ rockets were also constitutive of “crimes against humanity”. Fair enough. But the scale of the crimes is absurd for one to even linguistically mention them in the same phrase. Since you are so interested in the “complicated” nature of the offensive, I’ll share my own set of facts with you. The killing ratio in the Gaza offensive was 100:1. A grand total of some 13 Israelis died, 3 of them civilians killed by the Hamas rocket fire to which you refer, and 4 of the soldiers were killed by friendly fire. Are you honestly saying that such casualties on the Israeli side justify such brutal slaughter, at the scale of 100:1 (and this isn’t the scale of civilian to civilian, that’d be much higher!). There are loads of other issues at play as well — the UN Goldstone commission found that there was no evidence of Hamas using human shields or storing weapons in schools and hospitals as the Israelis claimed — there was apparently, ample evidence of Israelis using Palestinians as human shields! But to get back to the issue at hand, your whole diatribe is irrelevant — Yale is currently institutionally supporting pro-Israeli discourse, not pro-Hamas discourse — there was in this sense no reason for Nora to bring this in a few-hundred word Op-ed.

    For those interested, see the exchange between Salahi, Yishai Schwartz, and then Salahi’s response posted on the comment section of Schartz’ article on the YDN website for some background on the debate swirling around the Institute.

  • justayalemom

    I ask you Nora Jacobsen, to remember that Yale is an institution in the United States of America. Therefore I would expect a certain amount of allegiance to the USA, it’s Freedoms, and it’s Allies! If you are interested in portraying Islam, radical Islam, as anything other than what it is…..please do so allowing your true interest to reveal itself. And as a private institution, Yale can throw whatever weight it wants to, anyway it wants to.

  • Harbinger904

    @ justayalemom — as a private institution, sure. As a top University, it’s really not in keeping with our mission to have productive and challenging academic debate. She is making this plea as a student, after all.

  • Yishai

    Harbinger904’s (The cowardice of not using a real name is still disturbing) hatred of Israel is a common feature of the comments section. But although his misrepresentations are neither new nor unexpected, they should be responded to:

    “pro-Israel bias” is a term that only makes sense in the context of a specific conflict. I assume we are all pro-England and pro-France, and there is only an issue of problematic “bias” when England is engaged in a legal dispute with someone – then, for the purposes of that dispute, one should not be “pro-England.” I don’t think YIISA has ever endorsed an Israeli position in a conflict (eg the legality of certain settlements) that is not also shared by the US. Being opposed to an Iranian eradication of Israel is certainly pro-Israel, but it is also certainly not problematic. And criticizing an organization that condemns hatred and murder as having a “bias,” merely speaks to your own.

    Operations in Gaza – the most densely populated area in the world – were carried out with a precision and care for civilian life that we could only pray for in the US armed forces. The numbers vary (Palestinian sources 2:1 civ-milit, Israeli sources 2:1 milit-civ), but anyone with any sense of what urban guerrilla warfare involves should be marveling that the rate of collateral damage was kept so low. And when you read about Israeli military procedures, you will see why. Were there mistakes and abuses? Of course. Will the incompetent be removed and the criminals be punished? I certainly hope so. But to talk about the operation as a massacre is sheer sophistry- and no, getting numbers of civilian dead wrong (as Jacobsen did) is not an opinion, it is an irresponsible mistake.

    Yishai Schwartz

  • Harbinger904


    I would never criticize YIISA if it were ACTUALLY studying Anti-Semitism and not functioning as just an apologist for Israeli state power (the chief source of “murder” in the region). I could expostulate further, however, Raul Hilberg, the primate scholar of the Nazi Holocaust, has already done the job, a man who under no coherent mode of analysis can be said to “hate Israel” (Please see: http://www.logosjournal.com/issue_6.1-2/hilberg.htm). Also, please see the Salahi article, and read it for the argument this time.

    I agree with your critique of the term “pro-Israel bias”. It makes sense. Which is why I made the distinction of YIISA’s relationship with the “Likhudist Right”. As an aside, you must be unaware of their inviting the head of the “Go North” campaign and also prominent settler leaders in the West Bank, for example and putting them on a platform that confers academic legitimacy — if that is not endorsement I don’t know what is. There are plenty of Zionists they could have invited who I would have very much approved of and there are very interesting forms of Zionism that aren’t racist or bigoted. But there are constructions that are (as of all nationalist ideologies — nationalism is a “floating signifier” in that respect). In fact, I like to think of myself as “pro-Israeli” (in the sense of the long-term safety and well-being of the Israeli people). The opposition of pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli is a crude one and should be overthrown.

    You have the right to say what you just did about the Gaza offensive. It just so happens that nearly the entire world and every major international institution and human rights organization happens to disagree with you strongly in your characterization. I have read about Israeli military procedures — in U.N., Amnesty International, and HRW reports, all of which criticize them strongly and repeatedly — where have you read about them that lauds them? Also, why wasn’t it a “massacre”– is there a concrete definition that doesn’t make it apply to the murder of swaths of civilians in wartime? It’s not sophistry; it reflects a moral and value judgment.

    I don’t suppose it’d surprise you if I said I don’t hate Israel at all really — I think it has a lot to offer the world as a well-developed country with much skilled labor and resources to bring to bear on important world issues. I just think it’s policies are stupid, self-defeating, and structurally framing the conflict as a whole — and it is holding us all back as a result. Is wanting an Israel that behaves morally and produces policies conducive to peace and it’s long-term survival really “hating Israel”?

    In spite of my confrontational language (which is answering yours in this particular case). I have in the past voiced my wish for you to change your approach to this subject — I still hope you do.

  • Harbinger904

    Also, to satisfy your curiosity,

    Given that most other folk on this website chose pseudonyms is why I chose one myself. Under normal circumstances I would have no problem telling you. Nevertheless — and forgive me, for it is improper decorum in debate no matter the reason — but I don’t feel safe providing my name, especially to you, who so easily uses Antisemitism as a rhetorical tool to slander those you disagree with. I speak of your shameful and cowardly depiction of the op-ed writer Yaman Salahi as, more or less, an Antisemite (anyone interested should see the article in question located on this website and Mr. Salahi’s response in the comments section) — which speaks to your lackadaisical usage of the term (and consequent lack of respect and careful consideration for those who have suffered from real Antisemitism).

  • bk13

    How exactly is “Go North” a Likud platform?

  • The Anti-Yale

    Let me try again, this is a comma splice. A long sentence, no matter how tedious, with a series of parenthetical expressions nestled between commas, is not, and never has been, a comma splice.

    Anti – Semitism. or any other ism, hidden behind anonymity, is not only cowardly, it is hate speech.

  • YourProfessor

    @ harbinger

    My point was that Nora sacrificed legitimacy in her commentary when she began to use propaganda rhetoric. The first paragraph was a nice intro. The second paragraph raised a legitimate issue worth debating. The third paragraph began with an opinion of the author, but then moved to straight propaganda. It was not her opinion that 1300 Palestinians civilians were masacred, she was using this number as a ‘fact’ to support a position, a ‘fact’ that is debatable to say the least and certainly loaded with slanted language, i.e massacred. She stated the ‘fact’ that Israel was guilty of war crimes violations, again, to support a position. This is only a half truth, balanced by the war crimes of the Gazans. But in the end, all of this detracts from a central thesis about the bias of the YIISA. She would have been better served to have left out her anti-Israel statements and focused more on the YIISA.

    As for the other points you raised, what do you think the intent of hundreds of rockets fired from Gaza were? I have always had problems with the difference between attempted murder and murder. Why should someone be punished less for being unlucky and their victim surviving?

  • jocelie

    Thank goodness for this article!! It is long overdue… As an American Jew, I, too, am very alarmed at the growing intolerance among many Jews for ANY objective discussion of Israel and the increasing attack in the name of “anti-Semitism” against anyone who questions Israel’s policies.
    Yale students will, I hope, push to have a FULL discussion of these issues and not be cowed by the apparently nationwide (or worldwide?) attempt to intimidate that discussion. If one cannot openly discuss such issues at this university, then we should all be extremely alarmed about what is happening right here on our campus.

  • Labanite

    I’m with Jocelie. I’m also an American Jew, but I have quite a few problems with Israel’s policy. Israel is NOT Judaism. We need to be guided by ideas and values, not by lands and governments. And, as far as Harbinger’s (many) comments go, I see no ill words against any ideals of Judaism. I see anger on behalf of Palestine. That’s not Anti-Semitism. At least, not the way I learned it.

  • ignatz

    Nora posed a question in the title of her opinion column, and it shouldn’t be ignored. Her question is: “When does education become propaganda?” Based on my own observation of Yale, I can offer the following answer: When the message is pro-feminism, or pro-homosexuality, or pro-socialism, or pro-animal, or or pro-atheism, then it’s safely in the realm of “education.” Only when it crosses that red line and turns pro-Israel does it become “propaganda.” Next question, please.